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Tour group

Welcome to the Baltimore Sun and the opportunity to see firsthand how news is made. But first, please, everyone must don a hardhat for safety reasons. This is mandated by OSHA, the Oeditorial Syntactical and Headline Administration — no one seems to know why the agency kept the classical diphthong in its name.

If you’ll step over here, you can see the intake valves. Don’t stand too close; we have all the letters of the alphabet and all the punctuation marks coming in under extremely high pressure. Owing to a problem that the engineers haven’t figured out how to fix, a crimp has developed in the semicolon feeder, which explains why so many of our reporters have been using commas instead.

From the main intake, pipes under the floor distribute the letters and punctuation marks to each work station. Now you may think that the newspaper is produced by Industrial Age factory processes, which is partially the case, but each product, or “story,” is produced by hand by a reporter. It is something like individual weavers working at their looms — the work of craftsmen and craftswomen. The work is very exacting. You’ll sometimes see an editor undoing the weaving, like Penelope in the Odyssey, and returning it to the reporter to be done over.

What’s that? Speak up, please. Oh, you mean the periscopes? They are operated by a team of specialized observers from the Features Department to spot trends.

Now back to the actual stories. The final fitting is done on the copy desk, which makes use of several specialized pieces of machinery.

Over there, for example, you can see a copy editor operating the Lexicon Adjustment Treadle. It takes a text in which the writer has said that the subjects snorted, chortled, barked, snapped, quipped, drawled, intoned, recounted, grumbled, growled, muttered, sputtered, averred, revealed or opined and replaces them with said.

Next to that copy editor, another is operating a Cognate Compactor, which takes long headline words and converts them into shorter words to make a fit. Let’s see what he’s busy with. Ah, you see? Corporation has just been compressed into firm. Not really the same thing, of course, but now it fits.

Over there, on that platform, you see the man in the leather vest with the drum? He beats cadence throughout the day, doubling as deadline approaches. The copy editors call it “ramming speed.”

Now if you’ll look above the working floor, you can see those glass-enclosed rooms in which the supervising editors work. It is actually a suite of meeting rooms, and they proceed from one to the other throughout the day. In early evening, a herald is dispatched to that rostrum to proclaim the day’s decisions.

At the far end of the room you can see a door. But it’s not an ordinary door. It leads to the Editorial Department in a separate wing. Security is tight. Entrance is limited by fingerprint scan and optical scan of the iris. Beyond that door is the bombproof sanctuary — it has separate heating and cooling systems, and manufactures and recycles its own oxygen — in which the editorial writers arrive at their pronouncements.

I hope that this glimpse of the workings of a modern newsroom has given you a fuller understanding of The Sun and the people who work here. If you would, please leave your name and address with the representative of the Circulation Department who will be waiting at the door.

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:56 AM | | Comments (6)


When I was copy editing scientific journals, I used to think that someone had punched extra holes in the comma shaker (like a sugar shaker). I'm pleased for you that comma distribution is now automated--even if the equipment malfunctions regularly!

How charming!

In my experience, semicolons have to be taken away from reporters, by force when necessary. We put them in a box with the em dashes that keep trying to launch a coup and overthrow the parentheses.

Brilliant! Along similar lines, my little brother, who served King and Country for30 years in the U.S.Navy, was working in the Pentagon during the late unpleasantness in the Balkans. Some wag in the reasonably High Command who clearly had a complete grasp of the situation, circulated a rumor that the U.S. was exporting our surplus consonants to the area. Along different but related lines, you used the phrase "owing to." I know that "owing to" and "due to" are different, but I'm not sure how. What is the Sage's answer?

A word of caution to the tour group: Never use the men's room closest to the sports department unless you're absolutely desperate.

Highly enjoyable.
It reminded me a bit of the Steve Martin piece for The New Yorker on how Times New Roman had a shortage of periods.

And don't forget the Jargon Buster, where copy editors feed opaque terms into the machine's maw to translate them into plain English.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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